Project Nim: Bob Ingersoll interview

With the superb documentary Project Nim out now in cinemas, we caught up with one of its main subjects, primatologist Bob Ingersoll…

On the surface a simple documentary about a chimpanzee raised as a human, director James Marsh’s Project Nim quickly unfolds into something far more intriguing and complex. Detailing Professor Herbert Terrace’s attempts to teach a chimpanzee sign language in the 1970s, the story takes in academic rivalries, cruelty, violence, and moments of extraordinary tenderness.

If you haven’t seen Project Nim yet, we’d recommend that you try to find a screening of it as soon as you can – along with Senna, it’s one of the very best documentaries of the year, and an uplifting companion piece to this summer’s sci-fi flick, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

One of the most engaging subjects in Project Nim is Bob Ingersoll, a primate studies student who became one of the chimp’s few friends in a life filled with upheaval and exploitation. We caught up with Bob to talk about his involvement with the documentary, and his opinions on the research it details.

I heard that you’ve seen Project Nim twenty-two times…

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It’s twenty-four now. Or it might be twenty-three. I actually watched it again the other night – I was crying within forty-five minutes.

I know you’ve said in the past that it’s emotional watching it back, but what was it like actually making the documentary, and going back over those experiences?

Well, I wasn’t involved in the making process, so I didn’t see the daily cuts or anything. I didn’t see anyone else’s interviews. I was a participant, not a filmmaker, so I trusted James and Simon to do the right thing, and I allowed them to make their own film – I didn’t put any restrictions on my archive. I was extremely pleased at how well it came out.

I did help in a number of ways. I helped them get hold of Elise Moore, a friend of mine who was hard to track down. I helped them get some equipment that they didn’t otherwise have access to. But I had no idea how the documentary was going to come out until I saw it at Sundance.

It was a bit anxiety raising. You never know – they could have thrown us all under the bus and said, they’re all crazy! [Laughs] And I don’t consider myself as a hero, and I’m grateful to people when they come up to me, and want to hug me, or whatever.

What usually happens is, people come up to me, and they’re just crying. And instead of trying to talk about it, I just give them a hug and say, “Hey, everything’s alright. It’s okay.”

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It’s a beautiful thing, now, that Nim’s life isn’t going to be meaningless. His life is going to have meaning and purpose, and that, to me, is a good thing – Nim’s life is now taking on a whole new importance. And hopefully, it’ll become extremely important in helping chimpanzees, wherever they may find themselves. There are chimpanzees in the wild that need our help, and there are chimpanzees in captivity that need our help. They’re all chimps, and they deserve to be respected as chimpanzees.

I’m interested to hear what you made of Herbert Terrace’s experiment. Do you think that placing Nim with a human family was the right thing to do?

Well, I was involved in all that sign language stuff during that period of time, so it’s easy, in 2011, to look back and say it was the wrong thing to do. In 1973 to 1977, it was a different time. Animal behaviour research was in its infancy, in the sense that we weren’t even able to talk about their emotional state, or as animals as beings in themselves, with a consciousness that is similar to ours – or even exactly like ours.

I also found – and this is all in hindsight – that his methodology was flawed. He didn’t plan very well. It didn’t seem to me that they really sat down and thought about it very much. It seemed to me that Stephanie found out about the project right before it started.

In Oklahoma, we had a bunch of people who all worked together, you know? We were, like, the chimp people. So if we were going to embark on a study or whatever, we’d all sit around and mull it over.

I think it was a case of, “I can do it better than the Gardners”.

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I read that they worked on a similar project a few years before.

Herb was, like, “I’m a Columbia professor, and they’re just from the lowly university of Nevada, Reno. Who are they? I’ll show them, through the wonders of my Harvard education.”

I’m from Boston, so I have a great deal of respect for Harvard, but not all the students that came out of Harvard were necessarily Nobel prize winners. Although, if you think about it, the Gardners were directly related to a prize-winning behaviourist named Nico Timburgen, an English person. So the reality is that the Garnders probably had a great deal more reason to push back on that.

But I really do think that Herb really thought he was going to do it better. He was arrogant enough to think so, even without having any methodology or even thinking about it. Obviously, he knew about the Gardners’ research – it was all there. I mean, it was 1966 when they started publishing it. So that’s seven years before he started.

If you’ve read the book, Nim Chimpsky, you’ll know that Herb actually had experience with another chimpanzee from us before I got to Oklahoma. His name was Bruno, who I later tried to help. For whatever reason, some of the biggest names in primatology were aware of this, and could have helped us – Jim Mahoney and I – but didn’t. That was our first foray into working together, in the sense that Jim and I had got together in 1993 or so.

Naively, we approached a couple of people, including Roger, who we thought would be the logical person to go to. As it turns out, that logical person was anything but the person we should have gone to, and unfortunately, it didn’t turn out so well for Bruno.

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Bruno was actually with Herb for a while, and returned to Oklahoma, then only a few years later did he get Nim. Herb isn’t necessarily as honest as you would like him to be in his interview.

Fortunately, there’s the book by Elizabeth Hess, that has all the details in there. Project Nim is a film – it paints in broad strokes. It can’t possibly tell you every single detail. It just gives you a feeling for what it was like, telling Nim’s story as best it can, and it allows you the chance to go out and explore further.

There are a couple of books, one called Silent Partners: The Legacy Of The Ape Language Experiments. It came out in 1986. And then Elizabeth Hess’ book, [Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human], that is pretty accurate about what really went on.

What’s your view on Herb’s conclusion, that the language experiment was a failure, and that neither Nim nor any of the other subjects were really communicating in a humanlike way? Is that something you agree with?

No. I think that it may be true that he didn’t use sentences and grammar, in the sense that this verb goes before that adverb, and this noun goes here and not there. But I think it would be ridiculous to think that, in the first generation, you’d hand this being, that’s millions of years’ divergent from us in terms of evolution, twenty terms and then a dictionary, and immediately hear grammatically correct sentences.

Even the deaf community gets that. They’re very annoyed by that research, because the reality is that American Sign Language isn’t grammatically correct as far as English is concerned – in terms of sentence structure and that sort of thing. That doesn’t make it not language.

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And also, that whole, “Is it language or not” is kind of a lofty ideal. I think we should start with, “Can he name an object? Can he consistently call a bottle a bottle, using a symbol we taught him?” To me, that’s mind-boggling.

Think about it, there are no other animals that can do that. Dogs can’t do that. No tailed monkeys can do that. Only some apes can. Even gibbons can’t do it, and they’re apes as well. So it seems to me that Herb’s goals were somewhat lofty.

In the 1975 article in the New York magazine, the headline was, “Soon we’re going to know what they’re thinking.”

Do you know what I’m thinking right now? I mean, really? Do you know that I’m thinking, “I wonder what my wife’s doing today? I wonder how my cat is”? You know, I’m thinking about all that while I’m answering these questions. But you don’t know that. I don’t know that you’re thinking about your girlfriend, or that your mom’s in hospital, or any number of things that are going on in your life.

So I think that idea is really ridiculous. And to still stick by that in 2011, when we know do much more about animals now, is kind of laughable. I mean, no offense to Herb, because obviously, he’s got a bunch of cool degrees and his major professor was B F Skinner, but if you know anything about the history of psychology, you’ll go, “B F Skinner? Interesting.” Because Herb was more interested in making Noam Chomsky look like an idiot.

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And that’s where Nim’s name came from.

Yeah. And that jab was purposeful. With that rift between Skinner and Chomsky, a Skinner student would more than likely not like Chomsky, but would want to get back at him.

There were two very clearly defined camps, then.

Yeah. No question about it. Plus, there was a big competition between my major professor, Roger Faltz, and Herb. I didn’t align myself with any camp – I happened to be in Roger’s camp, because that’s the camp I happened to find myself in at first, and that’s the camp where all the chimps were. But when Roger left, I was like, “Take your camp with you. I’m staying with the chimps.”

Roger left Oklahoma right before the institute closed, and the reason why the institute closed was probably more Roger’s fault than anyone’s, because he actually went to the university in Washington, and pretty much ignored the chimps he’d previously worked with, which is pretty lame. But that’s personal opinion. You understand what I’m saying, though – it’s far more complicated than you might think.

One thing that did seem to come across in the documentary is that Nim’s fame did a lot to promote animal rights at the time. Is that accurate?

It was accurate in the sense that it did put Nim’s life in the forefront. But I think Nim was purchased as a publicity stunt. I don’t think they were necessarily looking out for the chimp’s interests. If they were, they’d have rescued all the chimps, and not just Nim. And they certainly wouldn’t have put a t-shirt on him and take pictures, and to this day, still use his image in advertising. A lot of people within that organisation were probably well-meaning, but I don’t think they had chimpanzees’ best interests at heart.

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I myself had to do a lot to convince them to get another chimp, named Sally, and that only happened at least a year or so later. Plus, a chimp group is more than just one or two chimps. If you’ve seen Monkey World in Dorset, you’ll know how it can be. If you’ve seen our film, you’ll know how it was for Nim. It’s certainly not the same.

Bob Ingersoll, thank you very much.

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Interviews at Den Of Geek